Syllabus Bloat

It’s the middle of the term, which means planning next term’s courses has begun. A student has already asked me for a syllabus for a course I’m teaching in January (“Would it be possible to see a syllabus for CI 250?” “Possible? Yes, anything's possible. Likely? No.”) 

I’m looking forward to the course. CI 250: Truth - Reconciliation - Story is new, it’s different, and it fills a gap on our campus. (Check out the course information page to learn more about it. There’s even a trailer.) 

But I’m not looking forward to writing the syllabus. Not because I don’t know what I want to do in the course - I’m actually quite clear on that score - but because I don’t like what has become of university syllabi in the past few years.

An early 19th-century rendering of a blowfish in full bloat.

There’s a tendency among higher education instructors to pack as much as possible into a syllabus. Part of this is ordained from on high: policies must be made public, assistance available to students must be communicated.

But from the syllabi I’ve seen, much of the bloat is our own doing. A couple of years ago, I was talking to a colleague at the beginning of term. She was quite proud of the syllabus she had just created. I asked her what she liked about it. “It’s so complete! I’ve got everything in there.” She must have been telling the truth because her syllabus was 18 pages long.

This is partially a professional hazard: the whole point of our academic profession is to look into problems as fully as possible, to consider every issue, to cover all angles and perspectives. But this creeps into our syllabi as well. We don’t want to miss anything, if for no other reason than out of fear that colleagues might see the syllabus and think: “Hmph. Kind of simplistic.” 

The contention here is that two types of content contribute the most to syllabus bloat:

  • Elaborate learning outcomes: Don’t misunderstand me: I accept that it is important to enunciate learning outcomes. Doing so helps me as the course planner focus on what’s important, and this is helpful when I find myself trying to stuff too much content into a course. I want to suggest, however, that we sometimes write learning outcomes the way we write academic papers: we don’t have students in mind, but rather our peers.  We’re talking over our students’ heads in order to make sure our peers respect the advanced nature of the content we’re presenting.

  • Elaborate assignments: We want to be good instructors, so we devise multiple avenues of assessment that will take into account various goals and skills. We don’t want to just test our students, we want to let them prove themselves via intricate assessment models. But with elaborate assessment techniques comes more elaborate grading rubrics, more class policies on late submissions, more things to explain. With every explanation or justification, the syllabus puffs up like a big old blowfish. 

What to do? One thing to keep in mind is that we don’t have to teach the course in the syllabus; that’s what we have the course for. Giving students enough information to orient themselves to the content, but no more, is the way I would go. Focus on the most straightforward explanation of course content and outcomes. 

With every explanation or justification, the syllabus puffs up like a big old blowfish.

Also, if we can, we should keep courses as simple as possible. The simpler the course, the simpler the syllabus.  That’s what I intend to do in CI 250. The course content is comprised of five novels. We’re going to read those novels, discuss them thoroughly, and reflect on how these stories help readers better appreciate human rights. We won’t have intricate assignments, we’ll simply read, discuss, analyze, and interpret. Less bloat in the course will lead to more concentrated learning. And the syllabus will become as lean a young lake trout.

This is the third of my nine contributions to the eCampusOntario 9x9x25 challenge.